raw chicken

Chemicals used to kill bacteria present in chicken slaughterhouses may only be masking—not killing—harmful pathogens on the birds, reports the Washington Post.

The USDA is investigating the food safety threat after chemical companies noted potential problems discovered in academic research on the issue. According to experts, “the rising tide of chemicals may be causing unanticipated side effects,” reports the Post. As processing lines speed up, with more birds being inspected now than ever, the demand to decrease foodborne illness risks is also at an all-time high.

“The latest allegations—that the stronger chemicals are undermining testing—are spurring finger-pointing among rival companies competing to sell their products to chicken processors. The companies say their competitors are the ones tripping up the tests,” reports the Post.

And the testing methods may be the reason for a drop in salmonella rates. “The dramatic reduction in salmonella rates has raised suspicions about the tests among USDA inspectors.”

On average, each bird is sprayed and bathed in at least four types of chemicals aimed at decreasing the risk of spreading bacteria such as salmonella. “To check that most bacteria have been killed, occasional test birds are pulled off the line and tossed into plastic bags filled with a solution that collects any remaining pathogens,” reports the Post. “That solution is sent to a lab for testing, which takes place about 24 hours later. Meanwhile, the bird is placed back on the line and is ultimately packaged, shipped and sold.”

But with the birds already out in the system, scientists suggest it’s a wasted effort; “in order for tests to be accurate, it is critical that the pathogen-killing chemicals are quickly neutralized by the solution—something that routinely occurred with the older, weaker antibacterial chemicals. If the chemicals continue to kill bacteria, the testing indicates that the birds are safer to eat than they actually are.”

Further, some of the USDA inspectors think there’s a connection between the chemicals and serious health problems including respiratory issues and skin rashes. The Post noted a poultry plant worker who died in 2011 after his lungs bled out. That death is currently under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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